Get to Know Square Zeros Podcast and Website + ZeroFest Preview

Jon Mann & Derek Hawkins

Greenpointers makes a good effort to share relevant information on the local music scene, but since music is only a single aspect of what we do here, there are plenty of other sites that go way deeper. One that can’t be recommended highly enough is Square Zeros, which comes to us from Derek Hawkins (a Greenpoint resident) and Jon Mann (of East Williamsburg/Bushwick). It’s a podcast, it’s a live music source, it’s an archive, it’s full of essays, and most importantly, it’s an effort to reinforce and build community among musicians and kindred spirits.

Square Zeros began as a podcast. One day Derek and Jon, members of the band Sunset Guns, were with their buddy Steve of Hearts Bleed Radio. He started talking about high school bands and remarked “What if there was a blog that just ran stuff about current musician’s high school bands?” It was a major light bulb moment for Derek and Jon. They didn’t act on it right away, but the idea refused to go away. Derek had been re-evaluating the place of music in his life and realized that he wanted to commit to it more fully. “I’ve never taken music as seriously as I have in the past 18 months. It’s not just love, but because I have to.” He had a moment of feeling he needed to throw his weight into this idea and see if it would work. “It was like a no-brainer, an inevitability.” After a few months of marinating, both he and Jon felt the answer was, “Let’s do this.” With Derek’s background in radio and journalism, a podcast made the most sense.

Launched in January of this year, Square Zeros began its third season of hosting musicians and playing and discussing music from their high school years. Most episodes are recorded in Danbro Studios in Bushwick. The 27th episode just went up today, you can check it out here. Overall, this podcast is a great concept beautifully executed. There is something inherently fascinating about origin stories of any sort, but when they are within the creative arts, it’s especially enlightening to trace the lineage and development of an artist and see how they’ve become who they are. With the inclusion of the songs then and now in the podcast, you can hear that development, too. The conversations brim with musical insight and genuine curiosity, all through a casual tone of familiarity and shared understanding. It’s that perfect mixture of being both informative and fun, key ingredients to a successful podcast.

From there, Square Zeros has grown into a five-days a week website. Monday is the wonderful “In Defense Of” column, where someone argues the merit of an album, song, genre or artist not always held in high regard or even understood. It began with Dee Dee Ramone’s rap album and most recently covered Dexy’s Midnight Runners. On Tuesday, they share photos of the shows they took in over the previous week. Wednesday is a look at upcoming shows, focusing on “the family” or group of artists that have guested on the show, played with their bands, are on their label, are their friends, and so on. Thursday is the podcast day. Friday is going to be for playlists of cuts that didn’t make the podcast, in efforts to create a more comprehensive archive of this early stage high school music.

I spoke with Derek about this project and the upcoming ZeroFest. The main takeaway for me is that Derek and Jon care deeply about the music community and above all else, everything they do is about celebrating that and growing it. In turn, they are honoring everyone who strives to express themselves and connect with others, regardless of any prestige or money. It’s refreshing and energizing, frankly. If you want to know more about their origins, check out Episode 10 of the podcast. It may or may not involve 311 and covering “Beer” by Reel Big Fish.

Greenpointers: What goes into selecting bands for the show?

Derek Hawkins: I’m both proud and ashamed to say so far it has almost entirely come from our networks of bands we know personally or have worked with in some way. In all cases, it’s about who we genuinely like. We have given special attention to going for non-male, non-white, and/or non-guitar. There is an over-representation of white men in music around here, but we want to show it wasn’t just dudes who were in high school bands.

GP: What excited you about this project?

DH: It’s a few things. If you recorded music in high school and you record now, you’re a lifer. So it’s something that celebrates really being a musician. But it’s also so fascinating musicologically. Since the 70s or so, up to the present day, recording equipment has become so much cheaper and more prevalent. And that is accompanied by an increase in people using all of it. It kept accelerating into our current era of cloud computing. That’s a goldmine. People were more prolific than ever. It’s this huge record of an almost naive art.

I believe that when your influences are naive and your palette is limited, you tend to make maximum use of that palette, of your talent. We want to capture this. Because a lot of it is now coming down. There’s a limited time frame, the clock is ticking. For instance, myspace pages are disappearing. Or even just old scratched CDs and slower computers play a part. It took me 3 hours back home to get some of my high school music.

GP: Are you finding that these early recordings are in line with how the musicians sound now, that they had some sort of evident DNA, or are you seeing evolution and change, where it’s almost like a different person?

DH: Probably the biggest thing I’ve learned is way, way more people liked Incubus than I realized! But really, it’s both. I do think people are more willing to experiment that we give them credit for. Sometimes I hear it and it’s like “You’re clearly a Sonic Youth kid…you loved DC hardcore…you were into the Stooges…” But the overarching narrative is way less predictable.

For instance, Seth Applebaum of The Mad Doctors and The Fucktons (Episode 20), his musical trajectory was insane! His first band sounded like Detroit, MC5, proto-punk. His current band is gritty blues, surf. “This makes sense.” But then the second was like a Southern rock jam band. And the third was this perfect AfroPunk project he arranged and composed for his senior project. And now he’s doing scuzz. It was remarkable, it was surprising.

Then there’s Marisa Cerio of Big Quiet (Episode 12). She was so all about jangle rock. It goes back to when she first saw Pete and Pete and heard Polaris. She heard it and was like “It’s all I want to do!” And so she has.

GP: This is really interesting to me. With all of our technology and ability to share, there is more access to information than ever before, and I think people are more well-rounded. Yet because of this abundance, we are also more inclined than ever before to define someone as just one thing and not let their identity, artistic or otherwise, be diverse so as to manage it all.

DH: That is absolutely true. People are more eclectic than ever. We are trying to help them through images and the pressure to have a market-ready projection of their band. We all have crazy separate paths. A lot of is the result of experimentation. There is a tendency in music journalism to inflate a band by their image alone. To pigeonhole them. With Square Zeros, the goal is to celebrate the fact that a lot of toil goes into making music. And it’s ok if you did something corny to get to where you are now.

Once again, here’s the website, and also you can find Square Zeros on Facebook, Twitter, and iTunes.

If reading this interview and listening to the podcast and reading the website got you itching to immerse in the local music community, attending ZeroFest will be the perfect scratch. It takes place from Thursday 10/2 to Sunday 10/5. You can find plenty more details here, you can get tickets here, and you should definitely RSVP on the Facebook page here. Would you like to sample all the bands playing? Do that here.

Here’s a little rundown with Derek’s comments.

DH: It’s 20 bands. Almost all of them have been on or will be on the podcast. 50% are coed and several of those are female fronted. Our goal was to focus on the community where we do our work, and to use interesting spaces where alcohol sales are not the focus and the bookers are doing real work on behalf of the bands. There’s no one sound. It reflects musicians we care about. We hope to draw new people in.

Thursday 10/2 @ Human Head Records. 3 Bands. “Hands down my favorite record store in the city. One of the coolest curated selections I’ve ever seen. Travis and Steve are amazing guys and community builders. We’ll be selling full festival passes there.” [preview post]

Friday 10/3 @ Bermuda Triangle. 6 Bands. “This is a brand new venue and art space run by our friends James and Stephanie. It’s all ages, not exclusive. I love the space.” [preview post]

Saturday 10/4 @ Shea Stadium. 5 Bands. “It has a great reputation. I’ve played there multiple times, the sound is amazing. They record and archive all their shows, and we feel cut of the same cloth.” [preview post]

Sunday 10/5 @ Don Pedro. 6 Bands. “Greg of King Pizza (the label we are on) books it. It’s THE place for scuzz/garage/psych. It’s a bar but it’s treated like a DIY space.” [preview post due next Thursday]

About Stephen F

Stephen does economic development for North Brooklyn businesses and writes about music at the online site Those Who Dig. He's only ever lived in Greenpoint while in NYC and he hopes it stays that way.

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